Sunday, December 27, 2009

It Pays to Criticize!

Two weeks ago I decided to go on a rant over what I felt was an injudicious, not to mention inappropriate, use of the superlative. The text in question was Ricky Riccardi's review of the new biography of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout that made the front page of the Books section of that Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. Ultimately I was less concerned with Riccardi (who responded to my post with a comment that was as informative as it was civil) than I was with Chronicle editing practices allowing the phrase "the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century" in reference to Armstrong. My basic point was that, regardless of the quality of the book (and I accept as credible Riccardi's assertion in his comment that, given more column space, he would have provided a convincing argument for the superiority of Teachout's book over all past contenders), there is too much subjectivity in how we listen to any genre of music to justify apotheosizing any individual musician, past or present.

This morning I found myself wondering whether or not someone on the Chronicle editorial staff followed my exchange with Riccardi (perhaps because Riccardi himself passed that exchange back to the Chronicle?). Today's Books section provides an opportunity for a "before and after" view of the text that initiated the rant. Here, from my original post, is the passage I quoted:

Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong' death, Terry Teachout had made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century.

Here is the summarizing passage for this book in today's Lit Picks column:

Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong's death, Terry Teachout has made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the jazz great.

Vive la différence! As I suggested in my initial post, I would be the last person to deny Armstrong the status of "jazz great;" and any history of jazz that neglected Armstrong would be a bit like a history of the United States that neglected George Washington. Indeed, Robin D. G. Kelley's sources have led him to conclude that the influence of Armstrong (among others) may have had much to do with the young piano student Thelonious Monk preferring the pursuit of jazz to that of the classical repertoire. Yes, this whole argument was only over a few words; but words do make a difference. As readers we are all obliged to call out cases when they are not used properly. That is our only safeguard against those who try to get away with (and often profit by) using them recklessly.

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